American Culture

I read books because I need to know … so much more than I do now

As I age, what I read and why has changed markedly over time

ArtSunday: LIteratureIf you’re a reader, you probably have a list of “fave” books. Or of books you found “influential.” Or of books you liked because each told “a good story.” Or maybe because the books were filled with vampires and such.

I’m surrounded by book listers. I lurk on a listserv of really bright people, and one of the topics du jour is “what’s your book list.” (Thanks to them, I’ve picked up several to add to my own list.)

Jim Booth, one of my fellow co-founders of Scholars & Rogues, compiles a list of books each year and reviews them here. (He’s done more than 50 reviews this year alone.) A faculty colleague has from time to time posted outside his office a list of “books I spent time with this summer.”

I never thought much about book lists.

Then the Time of My Great Disenchantment with Mega-Corporate-Run Journalism began to descend on me about seven years ago. I realized that the grist of daily journalism no longer dealt at length or in depth with the gnawing questions I need answered:

How does the world work? Why does it work that way? What are the consequences of the answers to the first two questions?

So why isn’t mainstream journalism as practiced these days telling me what I need to know? After all, journalism has been billed as “the first rough draft of history.”

Sadly, that “rough draft” has fewer authors these days due to firings of thousands of journalists since 2007 due to newspaper corporations’ ad revenue losses. (Nor has a sufficient core of the planet’s gazillion bloggers adequately fulfilled my need.)

Journalism has always had a tendency to “parachute” into a story, then depart when the story’s “hook” fades. Excluding rare exceptions, journalism is not a profession that dwells deeply and at length on issues that transcend decades. Its stories are too short, too narrowly focused, and only hint at the much larger questions that concern me.

books narrow 1Part of my attitude, of course, is a function of age. I can see 70 years old looming on the near horizon. The fear of vanishing time coupled to so much I do not understand compels me to find more effective means of getting answers — or at least deeper understandings — of my questions.

So I read much longer journalism — books. Pictured in this post are some of the titles that have enriched my understanding of how the world works and why. Several of these books deal directly with the consequences of those answers. Most have elicited this response from me: “Holy shit. I didn’t know that.”

The books we read (and too many people don’t read books) depend on what we need or want at the time. Readers’ lists evolve. As a young man in college, pseudo-sexual-psychological claptrap tended to dominate my leisure reading. (No, you ain’t seeing that list; I’ve already embarrassed myself sufficiently.) As decades passed, science fiction entered, then decamped, only to return permanently decades later; detective and police procedurals came and went; my Clive Cussler fetish roared in and limped out; then what I’d call “explainer” books about science, economics, and politics pushed most others aside and have accumulated in staggering numbers.

kindleNow I’m in a rush. Too little time; too much I need to know. I regret the time spent parked on the couch watching TV at night. I could have been reading. Multiply that regret by the last 40 years, and I have foolishly squandered so many opportunities to learn. So now a book is always with me. (Don’t ask about my Kindle; it contains more than 100 non-fiction books shrilly demanding my attention.)

As time marches toward a definitive end, it requires me to consider what I don’t know. Damn, when I was 20, I knew everything. Now I know the limitations on my knowledge are vast.

So I read. These authors have forced me to reassess, reconsider, re-evaluate what I had thought. I have learned recently how much confirmation bias has ruled what I think and say.

I never thought much about “the surveillance state” until I read James Bamford’s “The Shadow Factory.”

I knew of the existence of the RAND Corporation, but until I read Alex Abella’s “Soldiers of Reason” I did not know the names of the people of RAND — their networks and their roles in American corporate life and government — and how much their ideology of reason über alles contributed over the past half century to the fucking mess this country has become.

books narrow 2I had known of the Chicago School — I read about its economic ideology in my doctoral program, for chrissakes — but I did not know its role in suborning governments, enriching and enabling corporations to plunder nations’ resources, and throwing millions into poverty and worse. Then I read Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine,” and I was horrified.

Thanks to Leah McGrath Goodman’s “The Asylum,” I know why I’m paying more than I want for gasoline. [Disclosure: Leah is a former student of mine.]

You may argue that authors, like journalists, have agendas. You may claim the authors I’m reading have an ideological point of view driving their narratives. You may insist that any story is a selectively edited social construction serving an author’s intent. Argue away.

Books give me details — footnoted details — in great number. The narrative is longer, more complete, and fleshed out with historical context. Often, in prefaces, these authors reveal upfront their bias. Journalists on the daily grind of “objectivity” don’t do that.

Many of the books I’m consuming, of course, have been written by journalists who for whatever reason chose to develop stories in hundreds of pages instead of just hundreds of words.

Am I getting my questions answered? I don’t know. But thanks to marvelously talented writers who have invested time and treasure into their books, I’m at least learning new frameworks for discussing the questions.

To those authors, I am grateful.

3 replies »

  1. Superb, Denny. My hope is that you’ll write about some of these books. Our interests complement each other as you seem to lean more towards nonfiction with occasional fiction while mine are pretty nearly the opposite (mostly fiction with occasional nonfiction).

    Interesting, too, that we both are looking for explanations in our reading – that aspect of your reawakened interests in books aligns with mine. Since we’re both senior Scrogues (read old codger Boomers) at this candy store, I wonder if, instead of “what’s it all about” that we’re sort of on the quest to find out “what’s it all been for” – since we know (instinctively if no other way) that the way ahead is shorter than the way behind, maybe that’s a motivation.

  2. Mr. Booth must have been reading my mind. That “the way ahead is shorter than the way behind” summed up so well the thought rambling around in my head, until he put a voice to the thought. Thanks, Mr. Wilkins for your astute observations, and for showing me some new books that I need to read. I hope I never lose the ability to curl up with a monster book !

  3. About three months ago, I won my disability claim so I so longer have to work. My reading habits have changed since then, for I have more time. But the subject matter has changed too. It started with reading “Lies my Teacher Taught me” and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.” Both sparked absolute outrage in me. Now I’m spending my time reading all I can about empire, environment, the corptocracy, the demise of our democracy and so on. Right now, I am reading “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” by the wonderful journalist Chris Hedges. I have learned from the book so far that mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia is now setting off bombs each week in West Virginia that, together, equal the strength of Hiroshima. Also, just in the last decade, the mining companies have blown up and forever ruined land in West Virginia equivalent in size to the entire state of Delaware!

    About three weeks ago, I also discovered that one can find massive amounts of information about subjects like these on youtube. I had no idea youtube was so rich in documentaries and good independent journalism. I don’t know what I expected – I guess I thought it was all just music videos. Now I have a hundred videos so far tagged as “watch later,” sixty hours worth of news and information.

    So I have been just constantly feeding my brain with important stuff these last few months. It is my new full-time job and I just wish others had the same luxury of time that I now have and that with the time they do have, they would be chasing down important, alternate news. And definitely, the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is left to learn!.